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Free Study Guide for Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad-BookNotes/Summary
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CHAPTER 3

Summary

Marlow is amazed the Russian "harlequin," in his foolish wanderings, has managed to survive in Africa. He is also amazed that the young man seems to want or expect nothing other than a space to exist. Marlow's wonder grows even stronger as he listens to the Russian speak admiringly of Kurtz and knows that it has been a dangerous admiration, but the Russian's current situation is also dangerous. The starving cannibals on board the steamer ravenously survey the plump youth. As Marlow watches the eager cannibals, he feels the full darkness of Africa. "Never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle...appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness."

The Russian then tells Marlow more about Kurtz. The manager of the Inner Station has traveled deep into the forest for long periods of time in search of ivory. When Marlow asks what Kurtz traded for the ivory, the Russian tells him he gained it through force and through raiding the country with the help of a loyal tribe of Africans who adore him. Between travels, Kurtz often fell ill, and the young man has nursed Kurtz through two serious illnesses. He admits that Kurtz is presently extremely ill, but does not want help.


Kurtz really prefers to be left alone and refuses to talk much about his seizure of the ivory. The Russian then tells of his first meeting the man when Kurtz threatened to kill him for some ivory that he had. The young man says he gave Kurtz the ivory and then joined him. When Marlow insists that Kurtz must be mad, the Russian refutes him, saying that Kurtz has great ability with words. As the Russian speaks to him, Marlow scans the station with his binoculars and is startled to realize that the knobs on the upper ends of the poles are black human skulls, a symbol of the evil side of Kurtz. Marlow tells his listeners that the skulls indicated to him that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint, that he had something missing from his moral fiber in spite of all his eloquence. Marlow speculates again that Kurtz was "hollow at the core."

The Russian explains that no one can remove the skulls, for Kurtz wants them there and he alone makes the rules and controls the place. He explains how the chiefs of the surrounding tribes would come to see Kurtz and crawl to him. Marlow abruptly yells for him to stop talking. Marlow tells his listeners that he cannot understand why he finds this information more intolerable than the sight of the skulls on the stakes, but he does. The Russian then tries to convince Marlow that the skulls are the heads of rebels, but Marlow does not believe him, remembering how the starving Africans on the chain gang near the Outer Station had been casually and falsely labeled as criminals. Even as the young Russian talks about the hideous skulls, he defends Kurtz and says that he has been shamefully neglected at the Outer Station, a fact that Marlow knows to be true.

As evening falls, Marlow sees a group of men carrying a stretcher and coming down the path toward the steamer. As he watches the procession, Marlow hears a shrill cry coming from the bush, the same kind of cry he heard before natives attacked his boat. He then sees many naked blacks, armed with spears, bows, and shields. The Russian tells him that it is in Kurtz's power to save the Europeans from being killed by the Africans.

Kurtz sits up on the stretcher and speaks with his large mouth and in a deep voice, belying the frail figure beneath. Marlow cannot hear his words, but through his binoculars he can see that Kurtz is seven feet tall, despite his name, which in German means "short." (Kurtz is filled with many ironies.) The savages vanish into the bush, and the Europeans start forth again, bearing the stretcher with a now reclining Kurtz. The ill man is placed in a cabin on board the steamboat and is given his belated correspondence, among which is a recommendation of Marlow from Europe. When he receives the letters, Marlow hears the first words spoken by Kurtz in his presence, words that he has dreamed about and longed to hear. With a still strong voice, Kurtz clearly says, "I am glad."

The Manager asks Marlow to come out and look at the shore where an African woman walks in a stately manner, dressed in rich clothing. Marlow calls her "savage and superb" as she comes up to the steamer and looks on board with great sorrow. She steps forward boldly, then hesitates, throws her arms up to the sky, and walks away. The Russian tells Marlow that he has been trying to keep this woman away from Kurtz for two weeks. Marlow then hears Kurtz inside his cabin protesting against being taken away from his station and promising to return. He accuses the Manager of caring only about ivory, never human lives.

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